I concluded the last post in this series quoting from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Chapter XXV, Article 2).
I want to follow up on that, arguing that fellowship in the visible church is absolutely necessary for the believer. I’ll let Calvin articulate what I plan to defend, “But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is…Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for” (Institutes 4.1.4).
How can the Westminster Divines claim that outside the church there no hope of salvation? Is Calvin on crack?
Saying you can’t be saved outside the church is like a sailor in a lifeboat shouting to a person treading water in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean – “Get in the lifeboat. Out there in the water there’s no hope you’ll survive.” God, knowing how weak we are, how frail our faith is, and how Satan prowls around like a lion hellbent on destroying has given us the ministry of the church to preserve us in our faith. Because of our weakness, we need the external helps which God has seen fit to deposit in the Church, in “accommodation to our infirmity.”
Consider Ephesians 4:11-14:
“And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
Calvin comments on this passage, “God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church” (Institutes 4.1.5).
Consider for a moment what neglecting the ministry of the church says about God. It says, “God, you went to the trouble of establishing the church and instituting her ministries. You think I need to hear the word preached by your ministers. You think I need the sacraments. I disagree. I think I can do it alone, without the helps you have given me in the church.” Bold. Foolhardy.
What Paul says in Ephesians 4 is reflected in his words to Timothy as well. In Ephesians 4 Paul says the through the ministry of the church brings us to maturity so that we won’t be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, human cunning, or deceit. In 1 Timothy Paul says, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth ” (1 Tim 3:15). The church is a pillar and buttress of the truth. It’s to keep us from being blown around.
If we do not take advantage of these helps, we have no chance of persevering. Calvin again writes, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” And, “The paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.” One more, “All who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine.”
Consider two other passages similar to one another. In 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul says that, “By rejecting this [faith and good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” Similarly, to the church at Corinth Paul says, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing [slept with his fathers wife]. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5).
The 1 Corinthians passage makes clear that the person was to be excommunicated – put outside the church. This Paul equates with handing over to Satan. The world is Satan’s kingdom. The church is the outpost of the Kingdom of God. The immoral person is put outside as a remedial action, so his carnal/fleshly self may be destroyed through the ordeal of being put out and likely by physical suffering. Having been chastised he will ultimately find salvation and after suffering be restored to the church (2 Cor 2:5-8 – though this person restored is probably the leader of the anti-Paul movement and not the sexual immoral person, the same principle holds).
I will continue this stream of though in the next post, picking up a slightly different tributary and thinking through the ramifications for those who willingly leave the visible church. Fun, fun.